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With just a few hours left of my commercial pilot licence course, one of the lowest points I have is struggling to control the speed and altitude or heading of the Piper Saratoga II TC (PA-32R-301).
This is basic flying that should be second nature for a private pilot, yet I am struggling to make it work, and I am supposed to be coming to the end of my commercial pilot licence course!
What is going on? I feel like I’m in deep s**t and so far behind the aircraft! I had just stepped up from flying a docile forgiving much slower 140 horsepower PA28 into this six-cylinder 300 horsepower turbo beast.
Jumping into the Saratoga felt like I had gone from driving a lawnmower to jumping into Lewis Hamiltons Mercedes Formula 1 car in the wet!
The climb performance of the Saratoga made the DA42 seem underpowered and slow. I get into the cruise, bring the power back to 55%, and struggle to stay below 160kts.
This thing is an absolute rocket – and I’m struggling to keep up with it! In this blog post, I’ll share what happened in my CPL skills test.
What is CPL skill test?
The CPL skills test is the final flight test you undertake with an examiner to be able to undertake public transport flights and earn money from flying.
The CPL skills test is to validate that you have passed your theoretical knowledge exams, either CPL or ATPL theory and are proficient in conducting a flight in a complex aircraft to the exam standards and tolerances.
Passing your CPL skills test allows you to exercise the privileges and conditions listed in FCL.305 CPL – Privileges and conditions.
The CPL skills test itself last a minimum of 90 minutes but is typically 2-2.5hours in duration.
The CPL skills test needs to be flow in a ‘complex’ aircraft. The tone of the flight is based on a scenario that means you simulate a revenue-earning commercial flight in visual flight conditions.
You can complete your CPL skills test in a complex single-engine piston aircraft – SEP (land).
To satisfy the ‘complex’ part of the requirement, the aircraft used in the CPL skills test must have:
- a variable pitch propeller
- seat at least 4 people
- have retractable undercarriage.
You can complete your CPL skills test on a multi-engine piston aircraft – MEP (land).
Like the private pilot licence, a commercial pilot licence never expires once issued. All that passes is the class rating that you have.
EASA CPL requirements
To start your CPL course, you need to have achieved the following:
- 150hours total time (you need 200hours Total time by your test)
- 300NM (540KM) CPL qualifying cross country with landings at two different aerodromes (different from departure)
- Completed theoretical knowledge examinations (CPL or ATPL theory exams)
How many CPL exams are there?
There are 13 CPL(A) theoretical knowledge exams which are:
- Human Performance & Limitations
- Air Law & ATC Procedures
- Operational Procedures
- VFR Communications
- Principles of Flight
- Flight Planning
- General Navigation
- Mass & Balance
- Aircraft General Knowledge
- Radio Navigation
A good time to complete your theoretical knowledge exams if progressing via the modular route is during your hour building after you have completed your PPL.
Integrated schools will normally complete theoretical knowledge exams before the flying phase.
How long does it take to do CPL?
The CPL theoretical knowledge exams take anywhere from 6 months (full-time course) to 12-18 months (part-time distance learning). The actual CPL course is relatively short-lasting 15 hours if you already have an instrument rating or 25 hours if you are yet to complete an instrument rating.
What takes the majority of time to complete the CPL is getting the required flying experience before starting the CPL course.
To start a CPL course, you need to have a total time of 150hours (modular) course. To take your CPL skills test, you need a total of 200hours total time, including 100hours Pilot In Command (PIC) for modular courses. Integrated courses have a 150hour total requirement for CPL skill test.
For this reason, most people typically complete their multi-engine instrument rating before their CPL to allow them to meet the CPL total hours requirement.
Integrated students, on the other hand, only need 70hours of PIC.
EASA CPL skills test: what does FCL.320 say?
Taken from FCL.320 CPL, An applicant for a CPL shall pass a skill test in accordance with Appendix 4 to this Part to demonstrate the ability to perform, as PIC of the appropriate aircraft category, the relevant procedures and manoeuvres with the competency appropriate to the privileges granted.
The other item to mention is that when you undertake your CPL skills test, your commercial pilot licence is only valid for the class rating that you hold.
In my case, I completed my CPL skills test in a SEP aircraft, so my Commercial Pilot Licence was issued on that basis. When I later completed my Multi-Engine Instrument Rating and subsequently my B737 type rating, those were added to my licence.
Scope and conduct of the CPL skills test
The scope of the CPL skills test follows a similar format to the PPL skills test in the sections that are tested.
You are allowed to fail one section, which will lead to a partial of your CPL skills test. You may attempt a re-test, and you will only need to sit the specific section that you failed.
If you fail more than one section, you will need to re-take the entire CPL skills test.
You have to complete all sections of the CPL skills test within six months.
If you fail to pass all sections of the CPL skills test in two attempts, then you will be required to undergo extra training.
If you partial a section given the costs of a CPL skill test in terms of exam booking and aircraft hire fees, there is no harm in doing additional training before attempting the CPL skill test again.
You may terminate the CPL skill test mid-flight if you have a valid reason. For example, the weather may close in, or you may pick up an aircraft defect that means it makes more sense to stop the test.
Just be mindful that the flight examiner would need to agree that the reasons for termination of the CPL Skill test were satisfactory; otherwise, you will need to redo the whole test again.
Equally, the flight examiner can stop the test at any time if they feel that you have not reached the required level or carried out the flight to a satisfactory standard and a complete re-test is needed.
CPL is visual flight rules and single-pilot operation, so although obvious, the examiner won’t be able to help you during any part of the test.
Tolerance wise, you need to fly to the following tolerances:
- Normal flight +/- 100feet
- With simulated engine failure +/- 150feet
Tracking on radio aids +/-5 degrees
- Normal flight ±10°
- with simulated engine failure ±15°
- Take-off and approach ±5 knots
- all other flight regimes ±10 knots
Prerequisite for your EASA CPL Skills test:
On my mock CPL skills test, my paperwork was a mess. Get all your paperwork organised and make sure you meet these requirements. Failure to do so will mean that you could lose your test fee if the examiner arrives and finds a gap. It is not good enough to assume the ‘flying school’ will have organised everything. It is your CPL skills test fee on the line.
Prior to your CPL skills test, you must have:
- Completed your CPL course approved training in line with the CAA CPL syllabus (Part-FCL). Make sure your student records are up to date and the hours line up
- Completed ATPL theoretical knowledge examinations (or CPL)
- Be recommended for the test by your head of training or approved deputy and make sure you have your course completion certificate complete.
- If you have had already attempted the CPL skills test, then you will need to produce the previous test results (SRG 2130)
- If you have done any of your CPL course in a synthetic training device, then make sure that the CAA has approved the device.
- Valid EASA Class 1 medical. If your medical is out of date, you can still do your test, but the CPL licence will not be issued until you have a valid medical.
- Make sure you have your flight radio telephony operators licence.
An excellent document to read before your CPL skills test in the UK is the CAA Standards Document 3, which has guidance notes for applicants taking the CPL Skills Test (Aeroplanes).
One of the books that also really helped me was A GUIDE TO THE EASA CPL FLIGHT TEST – JONATHAN SHOOTER.
Commercial Pilot Licence skills test aircraft
I did my CPL skills test in the beast that is the PA32R – Saratoga II TC. Your CPL skills test needs to be completed on a complex aircraft with a variable pitch prop. If your flying school leases the aircraft for your test, you need to ensure that the insurance is available and in date to cover the test.
Most CPL courses only complete the last 5 hours of the course in the complex aircraft. For this reason, you may be unfamiliar with the aircraft, so take the time to read the Pilot Operating Handbook beforehand.
Technically, the examiner could ask you anything from the POH so make sure you know all the headline figures – fuel consumption, speeds, limitations, where to find the ELT etc.
Make sure you understand how to complete the techlog i.e. how many hours left until the next service when was the last one etc. Whist on the aircraft subject, make sure you have a clean approved checklist for yourself and a copy for the examiner.
Booking your CPL skills test and getting allocated an examiner
Once ready for the CPL skills test, my flying school booked my test, and I was then allocated an examiner and test date.
Most CPL courses in the UK exclude the CAA skill test exam fee – which is £826 at the time of writing. The aircraft hire for the test is not normally included in your CPL course either, so you should budget around £2000 to complete your CPL skills test and licence application.
Getting ready for your CPL skills test day!
The most critical aspect of getting ready for your CPL skill test (outside of paperwork administration) is to be well-rested.
I would say the CPL skills test was probably the hardest test that I had to complete during my pilot training. It is completely achievable though – you just need to be on the ball when the time comes.
I did my CPL skills test at Blackpool airport and although my test was scheduled for 2 pm the following day, briefing around 1 hour before – I got a hotel room at the airport and stayed over the night before.
It meant I then had all morning to get organised with all the paperwork, get the aircraft fueled etc. without stressing.
The CPL skill test sections
The sections of the test are as follows (taken from Part-FCL appendix 4)
SECTION 1 — PRE-FLIGHT OPERATIONS AND DEPARTURE
a) Pre-flight, including Flight planning, Documentation, Mass and balance determination, Weather brief, NOTAMS
b) Aeroplane inspection and servicing
c) Taxiing and take-off
d) Performance considerations and trim
e) Aerodrome and traffic pattern operations
f) Departure procedure, altimeter setting, collision avoidance (lookout)
g) ATC liaison – compliance, R/T procedures
SECTION 2 GENERAL AIRWORK
a) Control of the aeroplane by external visual reference, including straight and level, climb, descent, lookout
b) Flight at critically low airspeeds including recognition of and recovery from incipient and full stalls
c) Turns, including turns in landing configuration. Steep turns 45°
d) Flight at critically high airspeeds, including recognition of and recovery from spiral dives
e) light by reference solely to instruments, including:
- (i) level flight, cruise configuration, control of heading, altitude and airspeed
- (ii) climbing and descending turns with 10°–30° bank
- (iii) recoveries from unusual attitudes
- (iv) limited panel instruments
f) ATC liaison – compliance, R/T procedures
SECTION 3 — EN-ROUTE PROCEDURES
a) Control of aeroplane by external visual reference, including cruise configuration Range/Endurance considerations
b) Orientation, map reading
c) Altitude, speed, heading control, lookout
d) Altimeter setting. ATC liaison – compliance, R/T procedures
e) Monitoring of flight progress, flight log, fuel usage, assessment of track error and re-establishment of correct tracking
f) Observation of weather conditions, assessment of trends, diversion planning
g) g Tracking, positioning (NDB or VOR), identification of facilities (instrument flight). Implementation of diversion plan to alternate aerodrome (visual flight)
SECTION 4 — APPROACH AND LANDING PROCEDURES
a) Arrival procedures, altimeter setting, checks, lookout
b) ATC liaison – compliance, R/T procedures
c) Go-around action from low height
d) Normal landing, crosswind landing (if suitable conditions)
e) Short field landing
f) Approach and landing with idle power (single-engine only)
g) Landing without use of flaps
h) Post flight action
SECTION 5 — ABNORMAL AND EMERGENCY PROCEDURE
This section may be combined with sections 1 through 4
a) Simulated engine failure after take-off (at a safe altitude), fire drill
b) Equipment malfunctions including alternative landing gear extension, electrical and brake failure
c) Forced landing (simulated)
d) ATC liaison – compliance, R/T procedure
e) Oral questions
SECTION 6 — SIMULATED ASYMMETRIC FLIGHT AND RELEVANT CLASS OR TYPE ITEM
This section may be combined with sections 1 through 5
a) Simulated engine failure during take-off (at a safe altitude unless carried out in an FFS)
b) Asymmetric approach and go-around
c) Asymmetric approach and full stop landing
d) Engine shutdown and restart
e) ATC liaison – compliance, R/T procedures, Airmanship
f) As determined by the FE — any relevant items of the class or type rating skill test to include, if applicable: (i) aeroplane systems including handling of autopilot (ii) operation of pressurisation system (iii) use of de-icing and anti-icing system
g) Oral questions
CPL Skill test pass criteria
To pass your CPL skills test, taken from Part-FCL you need to demonstrate the following:
(a) operate the aeroplane within its limitations,
(b) complete all manoeuvres with smoothness and accuracy,
(c) exercise good judgement and airmanship;
(d) apply aeronautical knowledge; and
(e) maintain control of the aeroplane at all times in such a manner that the successful outcome of a procedure or manoeuvre is never seriously in doubt.
The key to your CPL skills is to demonstrate captaincy, have good knowledge of the aircraft operating rules in terms of flight planning, and conduct the flight competently.
I mentioned previously that one way to save money on your pilot training is to complete your CPL on a single-engine piston aircraft rather than a twin. I did my CPL on a single, so section 6 (simulated asymmetric flight) was not applicable.
The CPL Skills test day
CPL Skills test briefing
Before the examiner arrived, I had laid out all the paperwork (student records, licence, aircraft documents etc.) in the office that the examiner would use. It is a good idea to have a space allocated for the examiner and a separate room that you can use to plan the flight.
You can get yourself off to a good start by being organised and having everything in order. First impressions count!
Items to be checked by the examiner before your CPL skills test
- Your licence
- EASA Class 1 medical
- Course completion certificate/ Recommendation for the skills test
- Aircraft documents and techlog – don’t forget to take the aircraft documents with you to the aircraft!!
- Headset – make sure you have a spare in the aircraft.
- Two copies of your approved checklist
- Your map and airfield plates
- proof of payment
Items to have in the aircraft for your CPL skills test
- spare headset
- aircraft documents
- goggles/ hood for limited panel
The examiner then went through how the test would be conducted. You are basically responsible for everything unless the examiner says otherwise! The examiner then gave me the route to plan along with his weight for the mass and balance.
Planning the flight
I planned the flight as I had been taught during my ATPL theory and my CPL course. You can use electronic tools to plan your flight, but be aware, weather, NOTAMs, charts etc have to be from official sources.
Once I had my plog and map filled out, I then did my mass and balance and performance calculations, including applying the necessary factors. Don’t forget to plan your alternate too.
The weather was beautiful for me – CAVOK with light winds. If the weather is not great, the decision rests with you to make the go/ no-go call. You are being assessed on your ability to conduct public transport flight in VFR, so be sensible and make safe, conservative decisions.
We reconvene to finish briefing
We then reconvened after I had planned the flight.
The brief was that I would be taking a customer to our destination (Sedbrough) to take some photographs! I was then reminded of my responsibilities i.e. I’m in charge and responsible unless the examiner says otherwise.
I gave the examiner a weather briefing and highlighted the NOTAMs that could affect us. He checked my plan, including alternates. He then spoke about how the emergencies would be conducted.
Because I had completed my mass and balance using a spreadsheet I had created using the aircraft POH, the examiner asked a few questions to verify that I understood the mechanics behind the spreadsheet.
He then asked the speeds that I would fly: rotation, climb, best climb, cruise, best glide etc. Nothing to catch you out – just make sure you know your stuff.
Time to go flying!
With the briefing complete, I booked out and headed to the aircraft. Depending on your test and aircraft, it may not be possible to refuel before you brief as you don’t want to be in a situation where your mass and balance are out of limits or have a performance issue because there is too much on the aircraft fuel.
I completed the walk around, and it was time to get in and make a start. I was definitely nervous but was trying to do my best to calm down. Once I got into the pre-start checklist, I settled down and just went through what I had done many times before.
This is why it is so essential to build good habits during hour building. If you have good structured hour building, your good habits will help you during CPL, and you will have fewer CPL course issues.
Once the test starts, be ready for anything – including a simulated engine fire on startup!
The examiner is a passenger on public transport flight, so before you start, give them a safety briefing. I was taught to build my briefing around the acronym.
SAFE: Seatbelts, Aircraft exists, Fire Extinguisher, ELT…
The departure is to be conducted as safely and as expeditiously as possible. This is a public transport flight, so no hanging around!
On my initial heading at our cruise level with the departure complete, I did my cruise checks and my first set of time checks and gave the examiner an updated ETA. My routing took us over a restricted area (Morcome power station), so I did a brief dogleg to avoid it.
Use whatever system you have been taught and are comfortable with for track deviations en-route.
You will need to let the examiner know of any heading changes otherwise they will think you are drifting! Dogleg complete to avoid the danger area, we were approaching the half waypoint. I updated the examiner with our revised ETA and my final heading.
Be really careful about maintaining VFR all the way. We had some cloud coming up to the halfway point so I let the examiner know I would need to descend and why. Quick verification that we were still above MSA, I started the descent.
About 3/4 of the way towards our first destination, the examiner asked me to divert to a tiny village called Bootle. Time, Turn, Talk, Task, pick a heading, update ETA, find the halfway point etc, I updated the examiner. I was quite fortunate as I had done most of my hour building from Blackpool so knew the area well.
Our diversion leg had the midpoint over the middle of lake Windemere! From a distance, I could see the high ground (Black Combe) in the Furness peninsula, and Bootle was on the other side of Black Combe.
At the halfway point, I updated the ETA and made my final heading correction and pointed out to the examiner the landmarks and where Bootle was.
It is so important you are comfortable with basic navigation, and a lot of your hour building will shape this. During hour building, I always used to write a plog and draw my map. Although I had sky demon, my primary navigation was completed in the old school way!
On the diversion leg, you can use the navigation aids to verify your position. I fixed our position using the WAL VOR. Don’t forget: Select, Identify, Display when using navaids.
Don’t forget to keep a good lookout at all times!
Also, don’t forget your diversion ruler!
About 3/4 of the way to Bootle, the examiner was satisfied with my progress, so we moved on to the next section.
Air Work during the CPL skills test
It was then straight into simulated IMC, and limited panel. Take your time, particularly when figuring out which way to turn and timings. I was then asked to fix my position on the chart. Same again – take your time and do not rush. It is easy to make a mistake.
With the IMC section complete, I then took back the responsibility of the lookout and everything else!
The next stage was the various other visual manoeuvres: straight and level at different speeds, climbing and turning at different speeds etc. We then did the recovery from unusual attitudes, spiral dive etc. It was then on to the stalls.
A word of caution on the stalls, during the clean stall – the examiner will not always say when to recover from the clean stall. You can clarify this during your briefing
For the other non clean stalls, it is for you to recover at the first sign of the stall.
Abnormal and emergency procedures
The next stage was the emergency procedures. We had started to drift towards a parachute drop zone, so I advised the examiner of this, and we flew towards a more open area. Even when the examiner is in control if you see anything you do not like, speak up.
You are being assessed on your airmanship throughout.
My first emergency was an engine fire. Thankfully after completing the fire actions, I checked with the examiner if the fire had gone out and he said yes! This meant I had a bit more time for the practised forced landing.
I found a field, did a good circuit, turned final and elected to do a gear down landing (make sure you select your gear and have made your mayday call before killing the master switch).
With the commital checks complete and the examiner satisfied I would get into the field, he called go around. I then had some other minor emergencies that I worked through using the checklist.
You are allowed to complete items from memory once in the air, but for unusual emergencies (that are not time-critical), feel free to take your time, get the aircraft settled and then work through the checklist.
One of the feedback items I received in the debrief was that I did not use the autopilot during the non-critical emergency. The autopilot would have reduced my workload.
Keep your fuel plog going and the tanks balanced all the way through.
Approach and Landing
By this point, I started to get tired after concentrating solidly for nearly two hours. Keep going and work hard.
You are nearly done, but don’t relax your guard as a level bust or a missed radio call can still have you fail your test, leaving you having to pay another CAA CPL skills test fee.
The circuit was busy coming back into Blackpool, which made it a pain, as the Saratoga wanted to fly at a minimum 120kts clean!
This made it hard work trying to keep spacing with the 70kt Cessnas! Keep a good lookout and do your best with the spacing with other aircraft.
ATC will usually accommodate more than usual on an exam callsign, but I still had two go-arounds due to traffic! In one case, I got to 300 ft, had not received a landing clearance as the aircraft ahead was slow vacating.
CPL is about safe, conservative decisions, so this is not the day you want to get a landing clearance at 50″ and land! Just go around! Eventually, we completed the circuits and the touch and go’s with the last manoeuver being the rejected takeoff.
I had a good flight so far, and no big screw-ups so I was feeling good. The danger is a slip up due to fatigue/ concentration at this stage.
Don’t stop concentrating during the CPL skills test
The CPL skills test is demanding, and the examiners know that even the best pilots will have a slip-up. If you do, don’t worry – make a prompt correction and move on. A mistake does not necessarily mean the test has been failed.
The last manoeuvre to complete was a rejected takeoff. It was then time to taxi in. Concentrate, concentrate, concentrate, as you can still fail at this stage, e.g. miss hearing or not following a taxi instruction, missing a radio call etc.
Also, do not do your after landing checks until you have completely vacated the runway.
Silence and a bit of relief as we taxi in. I have done everything I can. Back to the apron, I set the parking brake and shut down. A brief pause and the examiner looks at me a says congratulations- you have passed your CAA CPL licence skills test! Well done.
The amazing feeling it was to hear those words. The amount of work involved to get to that stage over the years!
I was exhausted. My shirt was drenched in sweat! The examiner left me to finish closing down and asked for about 15mins or so before we started de-briefing. I was so tired: I could barely read the shutdown checklist and had to do it twice to make sure I had not missed anything.
You never escape untouched during a CPL debrief. The examiner had some observations – my map lines had covered some important detail, VFR rules above 150kts > The Saratoga II is ridiculously fast! And a few other minor points. The examiner was happy, though.
We then spent the next 30mins or so completing all the paperwork (CAA Skills test form etc) and then it was time to head home for a well-earnt dinner as a newly qualified commercial pilot licence holder (once it arrived in the post)!
If you wish to learn more about Pilot Training for CPL and beyond, check out my best-selling Pilot Training Guide on Amazon.
Do you have questions on the CPL skills test? Please leave me a comment in the section below. I would love to hear from you.
Kudzi Chikohora is a B737 pilot with over 2,500 hours of flying in Europe. He holds a Master’s degree in Aerospace Engineering, is a chartered engineer, and is a member of the Royal Aeronautical Society.
Kudzi completed his pilot training via the self-funded modular pilot training route and created kcthepilot.com to share pilot training and aviation content.